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Squaring off with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Mark Rosenker made little effort to hide his discomfort.
"I have great respect for you," Rosenker told the Minnesota Democrat during a public hearing Wednesday. "And I don't enjoy being in your doghouse, believe me."
Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, had come to the NTSB hearing armed with a list of questions about the government's investigation into the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
As he has before in their public feud, Oberstar made no secret of his displeasure with the NTSB's decision last month to forgo an intermediary public hearing on the causes of the collapse.
Wednesday's NTSB "reauthorization" hearing -- normally a routine annual budget review conducted by an aviation subcommittee -- would now serve as Oberstar's forum to press Rosenker to reconsider in public.
"It's a matter of courtesy to thank you," Oberstar said by way of welcoming Rosenker to the dais. "But it's your responsibility to be here."
That set the blunt tone for what turned into the most pointed examination in Congress yet of the course of the NTSB's investigation.
"In the Minnesota area," Oberstar said, "there is a huge skepticism of the objectivity of this board. And I'm not asking you, I'm telling you, a public hearing would go a long way to dispel the questions that have been raised and the lack of trust in the board's actions."
While Rosenker said he too was eager to heal the rift with Oberstar, he could promise no public hearing until the investigation is completed. At that point, he promised complete "sunshine."
"We will get a public hearing like nothing we've done before -- when the investigation is complete," he said. "There will be peer review ad nauseam, and we'll have it done before this year is over."
Dispute over hearing
Meeting that deadline, Rosenker argued, means dispensing with a public board meeting that could chew up as much as four additional months and serve no investigative purpose, other than to loop in the public. Meanwhile, he said, state transportation officials around the nation are anxiously awaiting the NTSB's final determination of how the 35W bridge collapsed without warning on Aug. 1.
"It was the professional staff's belief that there were issues of math, mechanics and computer science that they had to be working with," Rosenker said. He said investigators expect to complete a "finite element" computer simulation analysis of the accident in the next 45 to 60 days.
The NTSB board voted 3-2 last month not to hold a public hearing, heeding investigators' views that it would slow down the investigation. Rosenker testified that the national safety board has overruled staff recommendations against public hearings only six times in its 33-year history. Six other times, the board decided not to hold public hearings, going against the advice of staff to hold them.
Rosenker, a lifelong Republican who now heads the nonpartisan agency, got support from GOP members of the aviation panel, particularly John Mica of Florida.
"I don't think we should be pressuring them to go back and reconsider," Mica said. "It would look like congressional pressure made them do something."
Mica, praising the NTSB's work, said it's important for the agency to maintain its independence, saying he sees no point in a public hearing "just for appearances."
Oberstar suggested that the NTSB's opposition to a public hearing was either a sign of understaffing or a "condescending attitude" toward other specialists who might bring forward new information that NTSB investigators hadn't considered.
Pressed on the White House's $87.9 million NTSB budget request for next year, which is less than what the NTSB sought, Rosenker acknowledged that it reflects "budget restraints which the entire U.S. government is operating under."
But Rosenker denied that the 35W investigation was impeded by budget constraints, saying that 30 investigators were on the scene after the collapse, and that many stayed until November.
By January, the investigation had reached a preliminary finding that the bridge failure stemmed from undersized gusset plates in the original design, a conclusion that Oberstar and others say gave short shrift to concerns about bridge maintenance, aging and corrosion.
Invited by Mica to definitively attribute the bridge collapse to a design flaw, Rosenker demurred. "I've been sensitized to this by Mr. Oberstar," he said. "I'm not going to tell you what happened to that bridge."
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